Like any worthwhile business investment, selecting a Search Engine Optimization (SEO) agency requires time for careful consideration, and this is doubly true if your business relies heavily on online search for brand discovery.
The sheer number and variety of SEO firms to choose from is enough to give anyone pause.
During this process of intensive research and analysis for service procurement, a number of facets may not be as upfront as looking up an About Us page or researching an agency on LinkedIn.
Yet these same facets are crucial to return on investment, you don’t want to kick yourself for now knowing about them before committing to a potentially long-term relationship.
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Culture of Transparency and Communication
You’ll want to ensure that the SEO vendor you partner with embraces the same values of transparency and effective communication you expect between in-house teams and/or employees, and for the same reasons, really.
Transparency affords businesses better relationships, synergy, engagement and solutions. Your SEO agency needs to meet the same standards your internal people do on a regular basis.
Some things to consider:
- Which key performance indicator (KPIs) will be available to you on-demand? Are they the right ones for performance tracking?
- Can you request any data relevant to your relationship at any given time with good reason?
- What about communication times? Some changes in long-term strategies like link building obviously require some time to take root, so you need to be able to immediately shift tactics, can your SEO agency turn on a dime in these cases?
- How can you ensure you’re getting the truth and not a dressed up version of events to make things look good?
Secondary and Tertiary Competencies
While most SEO agencies might list secondary and tertiary competencies in their packages, always make sure to ask.
SEO on its own is strictly limited to traffic, not conversion. It’s a means to the bottom-line, which means it functions in concert with relevant channels within search (e.g. pay-per-click ads) as well as efforts indirectly related to it.
Your SEO agency needs to be at least competent enough in coordinating and communicating to the other moving parts of your digital marketing machine to guarantee that their efforts won’t exist in a bubble, and your campaigns are not in disparate silos not working together toward a single goal.
You’d be surprised how many people brush off the importance of tech stack compatibility when looking for partners across the many channels of digital marketing. There are a few simple questions that can help you determine if your SEO agency of choice has the right tech stack for your operation:
- Are they experts in your current tech? If you’re running on Wordpress, as is more than 70 million sites on the web, can your SEO agency work with that, or are they better with more technical CMS like Drupal or Joomla? Also, it’s one thing to be an expert at a certain tech stack or build, and another to just be “handy” in it.
- Can they help you migrate to a new one, if necessary? Might seem contradictory to the above, but technology is constantly shifting. E-commerce portal Bluefly, for instance, recently found itself on the wrong end of tech adoption when the E-commerce platform they originally signed up for, among the most popular ones in the past decade, couldn’t support what they wanted to do on mobile. They ultimately had to switch providers.
- APIs, APIs, APIs: The tech world is badly fragmented, and your SEO agency needs to ensure it either has the right application programming interfaces (APIs) or the capacity to support them from third parties.
Your partner’s tech stack is relevant to this factor: scale potential refers to how big your partner can help you get before becoming too small for your operation.
It’s a simple truth that different SEO firms have various clientele targets. Some cater to small to mid-sized businesses (SMBs), others focus on enterprise. While the ones that focus on SMBs can offer unique insight to enterprise level clients, they neither have the manpower or tech infrastructure to support enterprise-level SEO.
On the other hand, while the SEO agencies that focus on enterprise clients can of course support SMBs, it’s not a good match. Service packages might be too expensive, the resources needed for smaller operations might not be used to full potential, or the client’s stage of growth might not benefit from the level of SEO services provided.
You need a partner that can support you within the context of your current stage of development up to the point where you know what’s going to happen next, usually you go in-house, ramp up your service package, or switch providers. Regardless, your vendor should be able to support in-house transfer, service upgrades, or service migration.
“Thought leadership” is the key term here. The ideal SEO agency doesn’t just know the ropes now, but keeps abreast of how those ropes will be swinging in the future. Better yet, they should have a hand in shaping that future, if at all possible.
The right partner can tell you right now what SEO will probably look like in the next three to five years, and how these changes will dictate your relationship with them and how they render their services. This of course affects tech stack, service implementation, and scale potential.
A quick note on testimonials: don’t look at them. Well, you could, but don’t allow them to have any bearing in your decision.
Testimonials is a rigged system of vetting, no surprise there. It’s decent input on the performance on the SEO agency at its best, but you need to know that even at its average, the agency will still be able to provide the services you seek. Traditional vetting works much better here: get in touch with people or companies who’ve worked with the agency and find out how these cases went.
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Smallest and Biggest Clients
Since you’re vetting the agency by contacting previous clients, you should also dig a bit deeper and find out who their biggest and smallest clients are. This gives you an idea of their range within the context of our discussion on scale potential.
The smallest client is the client who’s just large enough to render a profitable relationship, which gives you an idea of their internal service capability. The biggest client probably constitutes a large percentage of their profits, which means if you aren’t bigger, they’ll probably be prioritized.
Take note that smallest and biggest in this case means the deal or project, and not the company size. They could have a deal with Microsoft worth tens of thousands but have a project with a smaller company for hundreds of thousands.
And that’s about it. Take note of these factors along with the more obvious and standard ones, and you’re bound to find the right SEO agency for your needs.